Virtual Influencers: Are They the Future?

When looking into the world of content creation we find ourselves drawn toward the personality and relatability of those we watch. We follow these people through good times and bad because of that human connection we share. Unbeknownst to some though, there is a wide variety of AI posing as people to do jobs like reporting the news. One of these jobs is content creation with robots starting to become more prevalent in many spaces online taking over many communities once occupied solely by humans.

This is not an overnight phenomenon either, it has been a gradual rise in popularity as the technology has become more accessible for companies to implement. With this rise, however, we must ask ourselves, could the possibility of virtual influencers be the future?

What Are Virtual Influencers?

To define this trend, virtual influencers are computer-generated character models. This could either come in the form of being used to make them look like cartoon characters or like a real person. They also have an artificial personality attached to them to appeal to a certain market, most of the time trying to be as relatable as possible to attract the largest demographic possible.

The AI tends to work on major social media platforms with the primary choice being Instagram. Though this tends to be their prime place to be, AI influencers have been around since the 1980s. Max Headroom was an AI that was sold as a comedic parody of news anchors. It was on a bunch of commercials for Coca-Cola and an appearance on The David Lettermen Show. Because of these appearances, Max is commonly known by those who saw him at the time.

After his stint on TV, AI influencers would not appear again for quite some time. The reason is that the cost for doing this, plus the technology required for doing this, has been very out of reach. This was true up until the mid-2000s with a company in Japan and a singing AI.

The Rise of Hatsune Miku

To see how popular these digital influencers might become, we have to see the catalyst for their success. While Max was a gimmick idea that became popular because of the shtick of being an AI, the Yamaha corporation would fund a vocal program called Vocaloid which would lead to the rise of an icon.

In 2007, the company would debut Hatsune Miku as a bot who would “sing” lyrics above already established music which could be bought by producers for a fee. To accentuate the popularity of this idea, the company would commission a character design and personality, that being a bubbly anime girl. After Miku’s launch, its popularity quickly rose to become a worldwide sensation.

Though only an AI, the accolades gifted to this have been countless. Miku has regularly topped the Japanese album charts with over 100,000 songs credited to it. Because of the AI’s nature, Miku has regularly collaborated with many talents from Japan on songs and has become so popular that it even gets a featured credit on the songs it appears on. Miku also regularly tours around Japan with a few outside dates and special features, the most well-known being an opening act for a super fan of it: Lady Gaga. 

Its popularity has become widespread with merchandise ranging from CDs, posters, and T-shirts to figurines and stickers. It has also been featured in mainstream media because of its popularity with news reports and talk shows as big as David Letterman and Coachella.

For more uses of AI in marketing, check out our article on the Importance of AI in Shopify Marketing.

Instagram’s New Models

As social media has become more prevalent there is a draw for more and more “perfect” images. Users follow suit in showing off with posts of their most recent trips, fancy food they’re eating, or just selfies with beauty filters applied. Those who actively look to post their pictures online have done this for a long time, but as time went on AI developers have started putting their spin on it.

Many companies figured that replicating perfection would equal free publicity, and it paid off wonderfully. From Rhianna’s Fenty Beauty digital model Shudu to the Geico Gecko, digital spokespeople have become quite prominent over the years. The issue with this is the repetition and association with whatever brand the mascot is representing. When you see that Gecko you know you’re getting car insurance, when you see Barbie you know she wants you to buy her accessories, it’s a dance that many are used to and tired of. So a company called Brud would create a solution that would get the internet buzzing.

On April 23rd, 2016, an account called Lil Miquela began posting on Instagram with millions asking if the woman in the picture was even real. This would continue for some time until eventually, the account admitted that it was an AI. This did not stop its popularity this gave way to more interactions by her audience through the inclusion of a story for her “character”. Much the same as a professional wrestler has a gimmick, this account also had one, that being a machine girl learning while living life as your average LA girl. This storyline gives the viewers a setup for them to latch onto and even influence as the account responds to comments and adapts her story based on replies.

This has opened the doors for other companies to replicate this by making their own “perfect” AI models to either show off the technology or to be freelance promoters for products the same as a human influencer.

For more on AI software involved with marketing, check out our article: Best Marketing Automation Software

V-Tubers and Bridging the Gap

At the same time as Instagram getting AI influencers, YouTube was also dealing with an AI influencer with a big impact on the future of the website. The AI was named Kizuna AI and was a virtual anime girl akin to the aforementioned Hatsune Miku, the only difference being that Kizuna live-streamed itself and interacted with the chat directly. Debuting in November of that year, the AI garnered a rabid fanbase almost overnight because of her cutesy aesthetic and developing storyline. It had three separate YouTube channels culminating in 4 million subscribers in total by doing the usual Youtuber activities like Q&As, Let’s Plays, and making music. 

The popularity of this AI has made its influence mighty with fans doing everything in their power to make sure that everyone can enjoy the content produced. For example, the Kizuna program speaks primarily in Japanese, leading to a larger multilingual fanbase missing out on the content. The solution? The fans would go out and personally translate this content in the early years voluntarily just so their fellow viewers could watch, up until the channel, did it? Issues like this were quickly fixed through the fanbase with such admiration for this character to the same degree as other popular content creators like Pewdiepie but with a comparatively smaller fanbase. 

Eventually, the AI program was so popular that the company running the channel rebranded into Kizuna AI Inc. with the voice actress for its voice revealing herself as an advisor for said company. This led to more deals and more publicity for the program, being a spokesperson for many Japanese products like Cup Noodle. The stability and safety of this character are what made it appealing for companies to attach themselves to, because, unlike a celebrity who can make themselves unappealing with real-world actions, the closely controlled image of a cute moe girl will always attract customers because of that cute and endearing personality.

The popularity of being a virtual YouTuber had its appeal, especially with the company Hololive Production which used this success to push for their idea in tandem with this success. Using the 2.5-dimensional character model of Kizuna and Miku as a basis, they would hire people from all around the world to become VTubers just like those pop icons. Today, these VTubers have become rampant on the website with thousands getting their models done and streaming as part of the Hololive corporation or independently. Though they are not AI themselves, they represent the popularity and influence created by said technology.

What Will the Future Hold?

As AI has become more popular it has also become more accessible. As we continue to move forward into the future, so will the ability to create AI on a wider scale. With this, AI will become more and more popular with the casual markets through the use of pre-established social media megastars who just so happen to be AI.

If anything else, AI has left an impact on the world through these quirky creations and it will be interesting to see what new ideas spring up for new AI influencers.

Contributor

Kyle Fritz graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University in the Spring of 2021 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication.

About Kyle Fritz

Kyle Fritz graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University in the Spring of 2021 with a Bachelor's Degree in Communication.

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